The Fine Arts Meet Fine Dining

By: Darren Ranck, Brennan Carley, Charlotte Parish

A Multi-Palated Taste Of TV

Food has taken the nation by storm in the last five years, as evidenced by the slew of food programming that dominates TV today. Last night, Bravo’s Emmy winning Top Chef wrapped up its “All-Star” season in which the chef-testants were put through grueling challenges like cooking conch, caught in the ocean by hand, on the very same beach that they snorkeled for the shells. Host Padma Lakshmi takes weekly glee in demolishing contestants’ self esteem—when she delightfully utters, “It was a little dry,” watch contestants’ faces crumble into a million pieces.

Chef is far from the only program on TV exploiting a nation’s obsession with food and cooking. Paula Deen and Sandra Lee are the face of a growing ever-larger generation, substituting butter (or “boo-turr” as the scrumptious Deen pronounces it) for margarine. It isn’t just their food that has swept up a nation, however—Deen herself butter-milks her burgeoning celebrity for all its worth, with recent gut-busting appearances on The Today Show and a blog devoted purely to her riding things. The best submission to date is, of course, Deen straddling a giant stick of butter.

Today, Americans like to envision themselves as foodies and critics alike, offering up sage words of wisdom on contestants’ dishes on shows like Chef and the new America’s Next Great Restaurant, without having tasted anything in real life. Andrew Zimmern has instructed us on the weird and wacky on his gross-out Bizarre Foods. Persnickety Brit Gordon Ramsay was food-television’s answer to Simon Cowell, a cynical jerk who took great pride in smashing people’s culinary dreams (He even popped up on last week’s American Idol, in one of the series’ most cynical moments to date.)

Food has completely taken over pop culture, in and of itself mutating into the newest creative outlets for “artists” to explore and experiment. Liquid nitrogen and alginates that morph liquids to gels with a quick stir have become part of the everyday vernacular. Today, it is considered unimpressive to serve a dish like a hamburger with cheese—not without the flash fried cube of chipotle mayonnaise on top, foodies might adamantly proclaim!

Something is certainly to be said for the newly-emerging, slow-cooking movement that has been silently sweeping the nation. Starting as iconic chef Alice Waters’ response to a generation that traded family meals for fast food, slow cooking is in a way a return to the “good old days” in which food was something to be celebrated, not dissected and gobbled. It offers a healthy alternative to the chocolate hotdogs (yes, these are absolutely real) and six-pound burgers loaded with disco fries as topping fetishized by shows like Man v. Food and Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.

The movement has, in a subtle way, begun to influence the way television producers think about food programming. On NBC’s surprisingly adept America’s Next Great Restaurant, contestants are encouraged to think about the big picture of their restaurants. Here, food regains a sense of integrity in a world in which it has been desecrated with oil and sugar. Participants learn the importance of organic and healthy options and the difficulties that come attached to their inclusion in chain restaurants. The show has thus far barely made a blip in the ratings. Perhaps America’s viewing audience is simply hungrily waiting for the new season of Top Chef: Just Desserts.

Take A Bite Out Of Blogging

Although the food scene at college usually leaves me longing for my kitchen at home, the world of food blogs – and there is quite a large universe of them – is always a delicious distraction, although a dangerously taunting one. Topping off the realm of simply torturous sites is the aptly named Food Porn Daily, where there are thousands of artistically arranged plates and delicacies. However, this blog is pure temptation because there are no recipes for the dishes and no other comments. It is a worship of food, pure and simple.

While I occasionally submit to this masochistic site, the real time sinks in the food blogosphere are the endless recipe websites that not only display melting creations of wonder, but also teach how to make them. Of course, the chances of accurately duplicating the culinary feats are slim, but you can get very un-slim and satisfied trying. Among the best head chef instructors I have ever had, but never met, are Smitten Kitchen, Tim Mazurek of Lottie + Doof, and Helen Dujardin of Tartlette. These gods and goddesses of food all sport incredibly clean blogs that are easy to navigate and willingly share their delicacies in step by step recipes.

Posting with impressive regularity, these sites are a scrumptious distraction and arguably the best way to find recipes. Cookbooks are all well and good, and still make a great house warming present, but food blogs update complex recipes or invent new dishes and publish with a regularity that printed books cannot match. Plus, the unique flair and focus of each blog makes it a more personal collection (granted that you can only be so personal over the Internet). Even the media at large has recognized this trend with Julie and Julia, which was more about the personal struggles of Julie than about the food, although the latter was still drool worthy.

But, not everyone can take on the culinary mastery of Julia Child. And there is a blog for you, too. For a glorious relaxation, check out Stresscake with its tagline “Exploring the bake and release theory.” Focusing on simpler creations, Stresscake puts as many humorous food posts as it does delicious ones, with satirical comments by the blogger’s about his life. A recent favorite was the ingenious and simple Guinness Stout Float, posted in honor of St. Patty’s Day with hilarious anecdotes about the crazy adventures of the day. Bake or Break, a self-labeled “adventure for the amateur baker,” is another website focused on the process rather than the professionalism of the final product. Focusing on simplifying recipes from professionals like Fat Witch Bakery or Martha Stewart, this site is almost entirely desert based and is pure heaven for chocoholics.

However, there is also an entire other side to the food blog consortium: the amateur restaurant critic. No one needs credentials now to air their opinions on restaurants and chefs or give recommendations for local eats. The College Critic and Serious Eats are two of these un-official, but so accurate that they should be official, food sites that are fantastic resources for anyone in search of great eats in an unfamiliar place. Of course, some sites are actually very well credentialed, like Gale Greene’s Insatiable Critic. The first female restaurant critic for New York Magazine, Greene has gone completely online for her victual evaluations with blogs and tweets instead of print.


March 31, 2011